Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor, during the first media availability of Super Bowl week Monday, was asked how he was doing.
"I’ve never been better," Taylor said, with some extra emphasis.
That rings true. Of all the people in Super Bowl LVI, Taylor is the one that might have needed this season the most. He was 6-25-1 after two seasons. He knows he didn't have much time left to turn things around.
"Personally, if I coached at any other organization in football, I probably wouldn't be here right now in the third year. That's the truth," Taylor said last month.
The NFL has become increasingly impatient with coaches. There are nine NFL teams that will go into next season with a new coach, close to one-third of the league. It used to be rare for teams to fire coaches after just two seasons; now it's fairly common. The Bengals have been criticized for being too patient at times, but they're in a Super Bowl with a coach that plenty of other franchises would have dumped.
Taylor had confidence even when there was no good reason for it, and the Bengals had confidence in him. Maybe there's a lesson to be learned from that.
"We expected to be here," Taylor said on Monday. "We’ve known what team we have had all along. We have never surprised ourselves, I can tell you that."
Zac Taylor remained confident
Before the AFC championship game, Taylor told a story about his first Bengals season and preparing to face, of all teams, the Los Angeles Rams in London. The Bengals were 0-7. Taylor said it was 1 a.m. on Tuesday. He and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan didn't have a single play on their game plan card. Usually that play card was done. The Bengals' coaches, with an undermanned roster that would eventually go 2-14, couldn't figure out how to scheme a single thing to beat the Rams and their great defensive star Aaron Donald.
Taylor said he wrote the time and date on his whiteboard, along with two words.
"I wrote up on my board, ‘Remember when,’" Taylor said. "And there’s going to be a day where we reflect back on this moment, when we’re struggling to get a yard on a game plan call sheet, and we’re going to say, ‘Remember when we couldn’t even figure out a way to get a yard on the L.A. Rams?’ Trust me, I look at that every day."
The Bengals lost that game to the Rams 24-10. It would be nice to say things turned around shortly after, but there were a lot of losses to come. The Bengals went 4-11-1 last season. They weren't expected to do much this season either.
But Taylor stayed confident. Bengals legend Ken Anderson, the team's all-time leader in passing yards, was at a practice in London before that Rams game in 2019. He didn't see a team that was unsure of itself or going through the motions at 0-7. He said the practice he attended was one of the sharpest and most spirited he had seen. That's when Anderson bought in to the young coach, even when Taylor didn't have a single win.
"That's when I said, 'These guys are listening to him,'" Anderson said.
Taylor sets dubious Super Bowl record
Taylor broke a dubious record by reaching Super Bowl LVI. He has the lowest winning percentage, at the time of kickoff, for any coach in Super Bowl history.
The positive way to look at it is Taylor persevered through two awful seasons and turned it around quickly. The other positive is the two coaches right behind Taylor on that list of worst winning percentages in Super Bowl history are Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick. Those two became legends after their first Super Bowl trip.
Taylor will face Rams coach Sean McVay, which makes the game even more special for him. Taylor was hired by the Bengals off McVay's Rams staff. Plenty of times when the Bengals were losing game after game it was mentioned that Taylor's only qualification to be a head coach seemed to be his connection to McVay. Taylor doesn't hide from that, saying he learned plenty about running a team when he was on McVay's staff.
"The joke is always if you had a cup of coffee with Sean McVay then you’re going to be a head coach in the NFL. There’s a ton of truth to that," Taylor said Monday. "If you spend time around the guy, he gives you a ton of confidence in yourself. He’s shown a lot of us young guys you can do it your own way, it doesn’t have to be the way it has always been done for the last 20 years around the league. There can be a different way of doing things."
Taylor is still just 38 years old. He has gone from the hot seat to a likely extension with the Bengals. If Cincinnati wins Sunday, he'll be a legend there forever.
During the lowest points of those first two seasons he never wavered. The Bengals were rewarded for standing by their coach when plenty of teams would have moved on.
"I believed every step of the way here we were going to get to this point," Taylor said.